Wed March 19, 2014
For Small Norwegian Town, Here Comes The Sun
Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 8:28 am
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, I don't mean to sound off-color, but there really is a place where the sun don't shine - at least for six straight months. Rjukan, Norway sits in a deep valley that runs east to west. It's walled in by mountains 2,500 feet high that block the sun for half the year.
Reporter Jeffrey Kofman tells us how people in town try to bring a little light back into their lives.
JEFFREY KOFMAN, BYLINE: Tracy Murphy runs the Nye Tider, or New Times Café, on the town square. Originally from Maryland, she married a man from here and moved to Rjukan 28 years ago.
TRACY MURPHY: It can be depressing. I mean there are days when you have to go out and you have to put your head all the way back just to look and see what kind of weather you have. And that can be kind of defeatist.
KOFMAN: And yet you've survived 28 years?
MURPHY: Well, yeah. But its home. I love this little town.
KOFMAN: The town was built a hundred years ago so the huge waterfall that tumbles into the valley could be harnessed for electric power.
Oystein Haugan is the Rjukan's historian.
OYSTEIN HAUGAN: You can imagine that it's hard for the sun to get over these mountains and down to the valley.
KOFMAN: Oystein can trace his family back six generations when this was a rugged northern farm community. Like so many people here, he has relatives in Minnesota. His ancestors left in the 19th century to escape the harsh life. Those who stayed watched Rjukan become the first industrial town in Norway. From the beginning, though, the lack of sun was a problem.
Oystein drives me up with the town's cable car, the oldest in Europe, built by Sam Eyde, the industrialist who created Rjukan.
HAUGAN: The company, (unintelligible), they built this cable car for one reason, take people up in the sun and get healthy.
KOFMAN: How old is this cable car?
HAUGAN: From 1928.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
KOFMAN: Unfortunately it is closed this winter for maintenance this winter.
As a little boy, did you go up there to get some sun?
HAUGAN: Yes, many times, many times.
KOFMAN: So if you can't bring the sun to Rjukan, you take the people up to the sun.
HAUGAN: Yeah, that's the idea. But now we can do both.
KOFMAN: Because as of this winter, people here don't have to ride to the top of the mountain to feel the sun. Through an inventive marriage of art and engineering, the sun is being beamed into town. It was the idea of Martin Andersen. His full-time job is lifeguard at the Rjukan's indoor pool. At heart, though, he's an artist.
I'm guessing that some people thought you were crazy?
MARTIN ANDERSEN: Yeah. Maybe I am.
KOFMAN: Andersen proposed putting huge computer-controlled mirrors on the top of the mountain on the north side of the valley, to catch the sun and reflect it down into the town square. A lot people here thought it was a dumb idea and a waste of money - it took 13 years. But last summer, helicopters lifted three huge German-made pivoting mirrors to the mountain top. Since the sun disappeared in Rjukan in October, they've been sending beams of sunshine onto the town square.
ANDERSEN: But it is very magical when the mirrors works good, because the light is natural but it's not natural at the same time. And it makes a contrast to the rest of the town.
KOFMAN: Tracy Murphy can now see the sun outside the window of her cafe.
Are you used to it yet? You go, oh, there's the sun?
MURPHY: No. It's my: Oh, my God. Sun's out.
KOFMAN: It's that exciting, really?
MURPHY: It is. You know the feeling you get when you light up your Christmas tree for the first time? That's what happens every time the sun comes out in the town square. We light up the Christmas tree and it's perfect.
KOFMAN: And many of those critics who dismissed the idea, when the sun comes out you'll find them sitting on the benches in the town square reveling in its rays.
There is, however, a footnote. This has been one of the harshest winters in memory here; it has snowed in this part of Norway almost every day since New Year's. There has been no sun for the mirrors to reflect. And so far no one has invented a technology to burn a hole in the clouds to let the sun shine through.
For NPR News, I'm Jeffrey Kofman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.